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04/08/14 Chef Haan Palcu-Chang of Le Mary Celeste

The welcome Parisians have extended cocktail culture may come from the onslaught of spicier bar snacks that require livelier pairings. From the trio behind Candelaria and Glass, Mexican and hotdog joints once previously unheard of in Paris, Le Mary Celeste goes the same route of serving cocktails alongside flavor-intense small plates.

Though labeled an oyster bar, Le Mary Celeste thinks beyond bivalves. A concise and constantly evolving menu crosses traditional European fare over to the East, often arriving at something clever and delicious. Nestled in the crêpes Chinoises are shreds of beef shin given crunch and zing by peanuts and coriander. Steak tartare gets Southeast Asian kick with fish sauce and scallions, while deviled eggs are boldly topped with ginger and wild rice. In lieu of complimentary bread (sacrilege to the French), there is kimchi. In a restaurant-bar whose namesake is an 18th century ghost ship loaded with barrels of liquor, these bites go well with a renegade selection of cocktails that mix ingredients as diverse as Sichuan pepper or green tea and sake, the latter fittingly named the YOLO.

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Credit such daring to Chef Haan Palcu-Chang, a Chinese-Romanian who’s lived in Korea, marinated in Toronto’s ethnic food scene, and learned to cook Michelin-starred Thai in Copenhagen. NOUS has a quick chat with Le Mary Celeste’s chef about letting Parisian palates set sail for the New Culinary World and running out of kimchi.

How did your involvement in Le Mary Celeste come about? What was the concept presented you?

I was doing some extra work at the Verre Volé. A friend of a friend put me into contact with [owners] Adam, Carina and Josh. They were looking for a chef for a new project. It was quite simple, really: natural wines, cocktails, Asian comfort food, and oysters. We met, talked, got on well and here we are now.

Was it challenging to get the French to respond to a menu of Asian twists?

For sure it has been challenging. French people are not used to things being spicy, that has been a big problem. But they are getting better. Also, French people season their food much differently than an Asian person would. For example, in most French food you are trying to highlight the natural flavor of your ingredients: beef should taste like beef, a carrot should taste like a carrot. But for Asians, it is not always important for this to be the case. We use many strong-flavored sauces, spices, and herbs. Sometimes the natural flavor of certain ingredients gets overpowered by the seasonings you use, but for us that is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just how we cook.

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Is it true you had to stop making kimchee as a bar snack because it was quite in demand?

It’s true. We couldn’t keep up with the demand for kimchee. But I love it too much to stop serving it entirely. We have 10kg ripening in the fridge right now and it will be ready in two weeks or so.

What are menu staples in Le Mary Celeste—dishes that won’t go away anytime soon? Any personal favorites on the menu right now?

We only have one dish that has been on the menu since the beginning: the devilled eggs. I think people would try to kill me if I took those off the menu. Everything else changes on a daily or weekly basis. Right now, we have a dish of spicy roasted Brussels sprouts on a potato cake, which I love. It’s one of the most popular items on the menu.

I’m always trying to come up with good vegetarian or vegan dishes for the menu and that is how this dish came about. It’s always much more satisfying to make a veggie dish that people love than a meat dish. Putting meat or seafood in every dish can be too easy and a little boring.

You work with a tiny kitchen, as I witnessed one evening. Is the space at all limiting or does it work for the purposes of the restaurant concept?

The kitchen is small. Very small. It’s just a plancha and two induction burners. However, we have never used that as an excuse. Everything on the menu is made in house with a lot of passion and care. We try and make the best food we can regardless of how big the space we cook in is.

Can you talk about some memorable kitchens you’ve worked in?

Any job you take, whether good or bad, teaches you a lot. Working at Maenam in Vancouver, which is a Thai restaurant, I learned how to balance food in a much more complex way than you learn in Western kitchens. From my experiences in Michelin star restaurants in Denmark such as kokkeriet, I learned to Work 16-18 hour days and still be able to push yourself to do more and maintain quality.

Based on the unlikely success of Candelaria and Le Mary Celeste, what does this say about Parisian dining right now?

I think right now you see a heavy influence of expat chefs bringing a more eclectic dining scene to Paris. Places like Bones, Au Passage, Abri, and 6 Paul Bert all have non-French chefs and I think this makes Paris a little more interesting.

Any neighborhood recommendations?

it’s no secret to those who know me: I eat a lot Of Asian food on my days off. Chinese food is my favorite. Try Chez Xu on Rue Volta or Noodle Atelier on Rue St Denis.

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